Genesis 27:1-4, 12-28
All Saints’ Day
I was already in seminary, and well along the way towards ordination, when I discovered that my choice of vocation was not something God and I had hatched up by ourselves. My big break from family tradition, my bold declaration of independence away from multiple generations of educators on both sides of my family...was not so bold after all. It wasn’t even a break. It turned out that interspersed in almost equal number among the elementary school teachers, college professors and deans, were ministers and missionaries galore. Even some of my female ancestors were lay preachers and missionaries. So much for my declaration of independence.
The press has made quite a fuss recently about singer Norah Jones and her family inheritance. Even if you don’t recognize her name, you’ve probably heard Norah Jones’s music, a blend of pop, jazz and country. It’s possible that you’ve also heard her father’s music. The well-known musician of classical Indian music, Ravi Shankar, died in December of last year. His instrument was the sitar, a plucked string instrument that looks a little like a banjo with a very long neck. Shankar and Norah’s mother split up when she was young, and they saw each other only sporadically during her childhood. By the time of his death, their relationship had improved some, but they were never close.
Even as an adult, and an award-winning musician, Norah downplayed the influence of her musical father. In 2004 she said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that "I don't like talking about him because he doesn't have anything to do with me or my music.”
Norah, Norah, Norah. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, the influence of our parents and ancestors upon us cannot be avoided.
The story of Joseph in Genesis chapters 37 – 50 is the longest consecutive story in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The story opens with the verses we heard Kristen read this morning, introducing us to a theme we’ve heard before: family division and dissension. Just as his grandfather Isaac was favored over his older brother Ishmael, just as his father Jacob was favored over his older brother Esau, now Joseph will be favored over his 10 older brothers. They don’t appreciate the inequality, and who can blame them?
Joseph tattles on his older brothers and Jacob rewards him –with more of his love and an extra-special coat. Technically the correct translation is that this coat had long sleeves, which meant it was fancier than a regular tunic-type of coat. But the idea of a multi-colored coat gets across the same idea – Jacob is playing favorites just as his parents did.
And Joseph makes it easy for his brothers to hate him. In Genesis 37:5-11 (the verses we skipped in this morning’s reading), Joseph recounts to his brothers a pair of dreams that symbolically communicate that his brothers would bow to him, and he tells them these dreams in a way that really doesn’t seem to blunt the impact. Joseph is getting a little big for his britches. Even his father Jacob rebukes him over the dreams.
This sets the stage for our reading the morning. Jacob sends Joseph out to the fields, and when his brothers see him coming they decide to end his ambitions then and there. “Here comes this dreamer,” they say to each other. “Come, let us kill him” (Gen 37:19-20). Decades of family conflict appear to be moving toward their inevitable end.
They end up selling their brother into slavery instead of killing him. Why not make a little money while accomplishing their goal? Having inherited their father’s skill at deception, the brothers tell Jacob that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal.
As far as they’re concerned, the dreamer is dead. But God’s dream isn’t over; in truth, it’s just beginning.
Joseph finds himself in Egypt, where he spends some time in jail but eventually rises through the ranks to the top of Pharaoh’s staff, due largely to his ability to interpret dreams. Years pass and Joseph’s brothers turn up in Egypt, too, looking for food because there’s a famine back home. Joseph knows who they are right off the bat, but dressed up as he is in his fancy uniform, and speaking Egyptian, they don’t recognize him.
The family habit of deception shows up again as Joseph plays with his brothers, pretending to think they are spies and accusing them of stealing the royal silver. Finally he tells them who he is and they fall into each other’s arms weeping. Joseph invites them, along with his father Jacob, to live with him in Egypt where his skills in dream interpretation have resulted in saving enough food for the whole country to survive the famine.
So it is that the twelve tribes of Israel migrate to Egypt where they live for generations. Long after Joseph is gone they will become slaves to the Egyptians, and then be led by Moses to escape through the Red Sea waters and into the wilderness. Through the many twists and turns of their history, and their perilous journey back to the Promised Land, they will find that God remains with them.
This persistent presence is not the result of any righteousness on their part. We have more than enough evidence that it is not their own behavior that saves this jealous and deceiving family. It is only the grace and faithfulness of God that makes the difference.
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, remembering all those who came before us - loved ones and strangers, saints and sinners, ancestors to whom we are tied by blood or faith, whose lives and dreams make us what we are today. This is “all the company of heaven” with whom we pray when we celebrate Holy Communion together; this in the “fellowship divine” of whom we sing.
We’re playing a bit fast and loose with the calendar, as the actual All Saints Day is the first of November, which is Friday. Saturday, the second of November, is All Souls’ Day. The distinction between those two is pretty well lost on us now, but in the old days there was a difference.
All Saints’ Day was for the remembrance of saints who left a name, whose stories were well-know: Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Mary. The saints whose names didn’t make it onto the ecclesial calendar – the ones known only to God, their families and maybe a neighbor or two -- were remembered on All Souls’ Day.
To get into the first group, according to the Roman Catholic Church, two things are necessary: proof of a good and pious life, and evidence of at least three miracles after death. This puts official sainthood out of the reach of most of us.
But the fact is that all it takes to be a saint is to belong to God. Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “it’s not a matter of being or doing good or wearing a hair shirt or even of working three, documentable miracles. It’s simply a matter of joining up with the body of Christ. Once you have linked up with Christ’s body, once you have been baptized in his name and shared his body and blood, you have everything you need to be a saint. You have your identity, (your halo) and you have a choice: to live as who you are, or not.”
You are loved; act like it. You are redeemed; act like it. You are a saint; act like it. Become what you already are and you will be blessed with every breath you take, because blessedness, holiness, fullness of life is what happens when you are who you were created to be, living the life you were created to live. Which is what God’s kingdom, God’s dream, is all about.
It’s often said that saints are the people the light shines through. It helps to have old-fashioned stained glass windows to point to when you say that. But I think it is just as true to say that saints are the people God’s dream shines through. And I need to tell you, University United Methodist Church, I’ve been seeing a lot of God’s dream through you lately.
I see big groups of you walking on the CROP Walk,
and signing up for Thanksgiving Baskets,
and spending hours on a cold Saturday raising money for camp scholarships
for our kids and for mission work all around the world.
I see you welcoming new visitors to our church and inviting them out for
I watch you visit shut-ins,
and host hayrides,
and bake and deliver meals,
and teach Sunday School.
I stand back and watch you work wisely and thoughtfully to move our
congregation forward to become more intentional about welcoming all
people into our midst.
I listen to you plan carefully how to keep this facility both useful and
beautiful, and I never need to remind you that a church is not a building, it’s
I watch you give generously over and over again to support all that we do
and are and will be.
I am filled with gratitude to be part of this family of saints that cares for me
and the church staff so lovingly when we hit rough patches.
Is any one of us perfect? Would our lives qualify as “good, pious and miracle- producing” enough to make an official qualifying list of saints? Undoubtedly not. But here is the gospel, the good news, found in the stories of our ancestors, Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & his sons, especially Joseph: the dream of God lives through and in the lives of God’s people. Not because we qualify – God knows we don’t even come close sometimes – but because God has chosen us to be the dream, to shine the light, to share the love.
Norah Jones and her father never became close, but in the late 1980s Norah contacted him and her half-sister, Anoushka Shankar. Anoushka also inherited her father’s musical genius, but she chose to follow in his footsteps more closely as his protégée on the sitar. The day Norah got back in touch with the family, Anoushka was in the middle of a lesson with her father. She said: "A soft-spoken girl on the other end of the phone asked to speak to Mr. Ravi Shankar. When she said who she was I was stunned because by then I had totally given up on the idea that we would ever have any contact with her."
In February of this year Ravi Shankar was posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Standing together, his two daughters accepted it on his behalf. "We all miss him and are very proud of him,” Norah said. “I will forever be discovering and re-discovering his music from all walks of his long and amazing life."
The sisters were in the news again this last week because they’ve collaborated on three songs on Anoushka’s most recent album of sitar music. Anoushka wrote the lyrics to one of the songs on a sleepless airplane flight a few weeks after their father’s death. When she showed the lyrics to her sister, Norah composed a tune for them that sounded remarkably similar to one their father had written in 1955 for an Indian film. "When I said that to her, I was surprised to find out that she'd never heard that melody before," Anoushka Shankar said.
Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, the influence of our parents and ancestors upon us cannot be avoided. They were no more perfect saints than we are. But the dream of God prevails over the failings of human beings. There may be long and trying times before it comes about, and it may come about in ways that we never expect, but the dream of God, God’s desire for fullness of life for all people is still being achieved. God dreamt through the saints and dreams through us.
Frederick Buechner. “Joseph and His Brothers.” Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and
later in Beyond Words. http://frederickbuechner.com/content/joseph-and-his-brothers
Geoff McElroy. Desert Scribblings, Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28. Posted August 07, 2008. http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/2008/08/august-10-2008---thirteenth-sunday- after-pentecost.html
Howard Wallace. ,Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28. Weekly Comments on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Pentecost 13. Posted August 7, 2011 . http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryA/Pentecost13.html
“Norah Jones Accepts Ravi Shankar's Posthumous Grammy Honor.” Rolling Stone Magazine. Posted February 10, 2013. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/norah-jones-accepts-ravi- shankars-posthumous-grammy-honor-20130210#ixzz2iq2cGQ2m
“Norah Jones on Her Father, Ravi Shankar.” Rolling Stone Magazine. Posted December 12, 2012. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/norah-jones-on-her-father-ravi-shankar- 20121212
Smith, Laura. “Me and Norah Jones” The Evening Standard (London, England) . May 9, 2003 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-180175/Me-Norah-Jones.html#ixzz2iq258rLe